Back into science communication

I signed up for a 1 day science communication training session at UTS last week. With engagement and communication there is no way around practice, so I am thankful to have had an opportunity to revisit tools for science communication formally (quite a bit of time has based since the McGill Liber Ero training). As I am working on a “new” project, I really benefited from a little help developing a clearer story on how to explain what I am doing and why.

The training went through how to structure a media story (need to out all the important info in the 1st sentence or 2), and zoned in on something that had come up in past training as well: write down your 3 “must air” messages and really stick to them. I also got to do a mock radio interview (which I will say was not perfect but better than when I tried a year ago). Right after the training I actually worked on a little story for the institute newsletter, and the piece came out today. What a great opportunity to try and apply what I had just learnt!

In between the P-FUTURES work and my Sydney mapping project, I spent a weekend down south at Jervis Bay. Such beautiful Australian Landscapes!

In between the P-FUTURES work and my Sydney mapping project, I spent a weekend down south at Jervis Bay. Such beautiful Australian Landscapes!

Twitter also brought some resources for science writing (templates), and an interesting article on a legal case arguing, in my very layman’s terms, that previously non-point source pollution can/should be regulated as point-source to reduce downstream nutrient pollution in Iowa.

Sunset at Currarong beach

Sunset at Currarong beach

Today (tomorrow depending on the time zone) our big grant application for the P-FUTURES project is due. It has been quite an adventure to put together such a big (and very international) application. I have not only been learning about proposal writing from a scientific content perspective, but also a lot about the more administrative, legal, and political side of things (in particular spending a lot of time creating a 3 year budget with multiple institutions with different currencies and ways of working). I can’t wait to hit the submit button in a few hours after all of our team’s hard work.

My 1st kangaroo sighting

My 1st kangaroo sighting


Discovering Sydney

Two weeks ago was our big Sydney stakeholder workshop for the P-Futures project. As such we also had field visits to better get to know the Greater Sydney Basin (which has especially nice for me and our Vietnamese colleague who flew in for the workshop as it gave us a chance to tour the city in a very different way).


We visited a few farmers, a wastewater treatment plant, and suburbs of Sydney. The most sticking thing for me was the difficulty of preserving urban and peri-urban agriculture in an urbanizing region and within a global market place. There are so many important services (ecological, social, cultural, and, financial) that agriculture in and around a city can provide and it makes me sad that they are not always highly valued. Decreasing agricultural land decreases resilience of urban food systems, as well as our capacity to recycle P. I hope that our project will help change policies and practices to ensure a vibrant, dynamic, and resilience urban food system.


Most wonderful orchard and owner in the Basin (in my opinion).

workshop presentations!

workshop presentations!

The workshop itself went very well. The 3rd time is a charm! It was still a lot of work to organize it, but running it really came together (we had wonderful people helping us facilitate and I am so thankful for that). One participant even told us it was one of the most professional workshops he had ever attended! In addition to the day going well, I also noticed that we are getting better at identifying what we need to document for ourselves (the nuggets for the proposal or for how to move the project forward).

Here is what I have gleaned from my tweeter feed over the past few weeks:

Although my project has changed to mapping, rather than “full on” computer modeling, a recent future earth post on agent-based models to help urban planners makes me curious about how such systems can help us make different decisions.

Very interesting research, with McGill authors, published showing that high nutrient concentrations are more important that high temperature in the occurrence of cyanobacteria (which are toxic) in Northern lakes. As I will be working on nitrogen when I start a new position in July, I was interested in reading how ground-level ozone peaks may change to winter because of decreased NOx emission in the US (although I do still have to be looking for permanent jobs and think about how to interview). There is also carbon being lost of the atmosphere because of too much N and P pollution in our waterways, while P is sequestered by sponges in reefs (bringing me back to my undergrad love of marine ecosystems!). Although there were data available to do the studies mentioned above, changes in the Canadian census put in peril our capacity to do research now and in the future.

Also a couple of papers in Science, one about the importance of bridging disciplines (and the particular threat or goal examined) to effectively tackle global environmental and sustainability challenges, and another looking at the need to work closely with policy-makers to protect ecosystem function by supporting flexibility in the face of large uncertainty.

Relocated down under

As mentioned in the last post, on December 31st I relocated to Sydney Australia for a 6 month post doc Endeavour fellowship, hosted at the Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF) University of Technology Sydney (UTS). It has been a little over a month and a half of adjustment; balancing finishing the odds-and-ends of getting the PhD papers published, working on the exciting on-going work of P-Futures, and starting a new 6 month project.

Red Leaf pool in the Sydney area.

Red Leaf pool in the Sydney area.

The P-Futures front has been particularly exciting. We just got back from Blantyre Malawi where we held our second stakeholder workshop, did field trips, and got to know our new local research partners better (see photos below). Learning from Hanoi, we incorporated a lot more small group work and it was a success (we were able to do some great systems mapping and also allow for cross-sectoral learning between the stakeholders). Close collaborator and friend Dr. David Iwaniec also posted on the Hanoi workshop and a Phoenix workshop on futures I participated in, both of which shaped how we tweaked the Blantyre event. Because of the trip timing, we were able to do our field visits before hosting the workshop, and this was quite beneficial for the research team because we had a greater understanding of local context and why people were bringing-up certain goals and concerns in the workshop. The Sydney and Phoenix workshops are coming up in March so we are now busy with inviting those stakeholders and creating even more refined and locally-adapted workshop days. The 3 year proposal deadline is also next month so working in that document is also a big priority.

Creating system map of current priorities and drivers in small groups. Photo credit: David Iwaniec

Creating system map of current priorities and drivers in small groups. Photo credit: David Iwaniec

Maize is the staple crop in Malawi, and it is grown everywhere (really everywhere). You can clearly see however which plots have been fertilized and which ones have not. Photo credit: Genevieve Metson

Maize is the staple crop in Malawi, and it is grown everywhere (really everywhere). You can clearly see however which plots have been fertilized and which ones have not. Photo credit: Genevieve Metson

Last year I had posted a link to a climate change resettlement photo series that I found very moving. Climate change induced resettlement is also “hot” in the scientific literature (e.g. this Nature piece). When visiting Malawi, the effect of extreme weather events, which are indeed increasing in frequency with climate change, hit home. Torrential rain and floods in and around the city were were staying in has left around 200,000 people without homes and destroyed crops.


Chikwawa District just south of Blantyre Malawi which was severely affected by the floods. You can still see some of the standing water. Photo credit: Genevieve Metson

Back in Sydney, one big change has been working in an office environment instead of at home or in cafes (although I have been sure to get some good cafe time in on the weekends!). It is a good thing, especially because everyone in the ISF office does different, but equally exciting, things around sustainability. It is great to get exposure to so many projects, approaches, and great people. Working “regular” business hours however has been challenging as my natural rhythm seems to be working more in the evenings.  I think I am adjusting slowly but surely though.

I am currently working a project to map current and possible future P supply and P demand in the Greater Sydney Basin as a tool to help stakeholders make decisions about how best to manage phosphorus in the city. Getting familiar with data sources in a new country, the local context of a new and exciting city, and learning about spatial modeling and participatory tools in decision-making have been my 1st order of business. It is still on going of course, but I now feel like I have a bit of direction. (I even completed my code academy class on Python coding!) I hope this project can contribute and interface with another exciting project at ISF around food, farming, and resilience in the Sydney Basin. Although I am focusing on Sydney now, the idea is that the methods developed during the 6 month project can then be applied to the other P-Futures cities if local stakeholders feel like a spatial tool would be helpful in moving towards sustainable P goals.

My interest in continuing art-science collaborations has not died down with the move. In fact, I have even started to take dance classes again, and even attending an event at PACT center for emerging artists about unusual art collaborations this weekend. I also just read a feature on  climate change and music, and discovered a UTS based project (which is where I am based at) using art and science around climate change in multiple media that I need to investigate further.

Back from a science travel extravanganza

I have been back from my science trip extravaganza for a week now and still catching up on the “to do” list before the next travel adventure beginnings. I recently learnt that I was awarded an Australian Endeavor Research Fellowship and I am now moving to Sydney in a few weeks to do a 6 month research project.

Over the past month and a half I have been to Portland Oregon to discuss nitrogen and phosphorus cycling in the US, Phoenix Arizona to talk about urban sustainability in terms of nutrients, as well as in terms of future scenarios and adaptation to extreme weather events, and finally to Hanoi Vietnam to discuss urban phosphorus management and how to link it to existing urban priorities and realities.

Its been very busy, but also fun to have an opportunity to talk and collaborate with so many people. I finally understand why/how professors and other academics do work in planes and airports; they have to so they just do it!

Here are a few pictures from the Vietnam trip. It was pretty great to think about P management from a non Western world perspective, and also really “see” what the Hanoi P budget looks like on the grounds and not just through a Material Flow Analysis figure on a piece of paper. I am all about “local context”, and it was great to see the differences and similarities between Hanoi and the two cities where I have done both quantitative and qualitative work around P: Montreal and Phoenix.

interface of urbanization, infrastructure and agriculture in Hanoi Vietnam. Photo credit: David Iwaniec

Interface of urbanization, infrastructure and agriculture in Hanoi Vietnam. Photo credit: David Iwaniec

The research team doing some experiential learning by planting rice.

The research team doing some experiential learning by planting rice.

Urban Hanoi farmer washing veggies in eutrophied water body. Photo credit: David Iwaniec

Urban Hanoi farmer washing veggies in eutrophied water body. Photo credit: David Iwaniec

Field visits around Hanoi. Photo credit: Dana Cordell

Field visits around Hanoi. Photo credit: Dana Cordell

Hanoi workshop. Photo credit: David Iwaniec

Hanoi workshop. Photo credit: David Iwaniec

In a mich-mach of internet discoveries:

I just noticed this thing called code academy through my twitter feed and I am hoping I can set aside a few hours each week in the new year to get through some lessons.

Cool climate change and carbon visualization from The Guardian and cool national diet visualization from National Geographic.

Great article on the need for fertilizers in Africa but they often prohibitively high price for farmers.

Considering the P-Futures project is about transformation and doing it through co-creation with stakeholders, I have been reading up on other people’s experiences doing such type of work. I have come across a nice post about the Natural Capital project engagement experience, and I am also reading a journal article on knowledge exchange principles which might hold some interesting pieces of information I can apply.

Getting ready for new projects, and advice for grad students starting out

I am leaving for a series of exciting research trips at the end of the week, and I have been preparing intellectually and logistically. I am giving a couple of talks next week, so I am expanding my defence presentation with material about future directions and research questions, and a little bit more nuance on past methods and results. I am then participating in a number of workshops in a different state, but I will wait to prep for that closer to the date.

Preparing for the P-FUTURES work though is by far the most demanding (but also lots of fun because I have amazing collaborators). I am understanding the enormous size of administrative and logistical tasks necessary to conduct large research projects (I knew about it but I had never “done” it except for my Montreal field work ). It was a lot of preparation to write the grant and we planned the timing, tasks, and budget for the project. But, now that we are actually doing the project, lots of little things we hadn’t explicitly mentioned in the proposal are popping up. For example, to do the workshop in Vietnam we hadn’t planned the translators, the ethics approval process for all universities involved, or the process of getting visas for everyone to attend. We are of course managing all these things, but when you add that to the tasks of writing “punchy” invitation letters and “so what” research summaries for stakeholders, and planning the actual workshops, it becomes a lot to handle. Thank god for skype, but collaborating with people on 4 continents and 5 countries means strange working hours.

Although I am moving on from graduate school now, I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to sit on a panel of other fellow finishing grad students to give advice to new grad students in our department. Although all of us had different research foci and experiences, we all had common advice. I would say these were the main points:

  1. Physical and mental health (take care of your self)
  2. Time management (you need to keep yourself accountable, but also remember that you do have time for other things than thesis work, which includes #1)
  3. Communicate and collaborate (including networking)
  4. Ask for help and help others (this includes your advisor, your labmates, and others, you are not in this alone!)
  5. take statistics classes (at McGill, online, or other university, and there are great books)
Bridge on a walk through the forest. I feel like mid-october to mid-december represent a time to bridge the end of the PhD to the beginning of the Post Doc.

Bridge on a walk through the forest. I feel like mid-october to mid-december represent a time to bridge the end of the PhD to the beginning of the Post Doc.

Over the past month I have been gathering a plethora of links and articles that would be interesting to link to my work or the writing/communication process but I will just share two today.

A post-doc in the lab shared this essay on creativity, and it really resonated with me. Trying to balance knowledge and systems thinking with boldness, and balancing working alone and in small groups (which need to be relaxed). There is also a recent PNAS piece on this creative part of the academic process.

Liz Banse shared on twitter a link to a photographer reporting on sea-level rise. I was really moved and deeply scared when viewing the images and explanations. I know I read about climate change, sea-level rise, and flooding in academic papers all the time, I have been reading about it since undergrad. But it is happening now! We need more than indicators and predictive models, we needs ways to cope with this complex issue (both the physical and the social equity components). I feel like these images are powerful communication tools about environmental change for the public, but also really puts into perspective the work we do as academics, and perhaps the need to make stronger links between the social and natural, and between science and policy.

Post-defence and back to the litterature

The PhD is done! I have defended my thesis and submitted the final version. It was stressful but went well in the end. The only thing I can really offer as advice post-defence is that one needs to accept that you can’t really prepare for the questions you will get.

Now its time to ensure I make very good progress on my ongoing projects and start to prepare for my post-doc beginning in January. Some of this preparation must involve a return to the literature (and social media) as I have been so micro-focused on the papers that were directly related to my thesis.

At the moment in the lab group are reviewing key papers (as well as novel papers) in the world of ecosystem services literature. It feels great to get back to the literature and be able to discuss with a group about where the interesting questions are, where there is confusion, and where there is clarity. This feels like such an important step in the intellectual process, but I feel like its not what takes up most of our time.

The lab group is also revising our common interest in science communication (and more specifically the ES Montreal project, and some of the great tools we learnt in COMPASS training). We are thinking of creating some 30 second videos about our research interests and I came a cross a post on science video creation that I think we can add to our list of resources to pull from. The twitterverse has also shared a some more resources on science communication and engagement I am eager to try. First I want to read this book on writing (its all about being clear and concise, and I will even go get to see the author speak on Friday!), and a blog post on how good writing often breaks the rules we are often though to follow. Then there is a tool on editing screenshots, which could be really useful when creating step-by-step guides I think. AAAS has some interesting talks planned on science communication (I know I can’t go but it does look like fun!). Finally, The Story of Stuff project has come up with a new model for engagement. This last one caught my eye because in revising a manuscript a couple of weeks ago a looked into the science-policy gap literature a bit more (mostly related to urban issues and sustainability indicators), and found that the problems seemed well articulated, but I still felt fuzzy on how to deal with the problems (I got as far as understanding that we can’t deal with simple, complex, and complicated problems the same way, but only read about very local example of success in dealing with wicked problems).

Here are a couple pictures of the amazing skies in Montreal on Thursday October 9th, the day after my defence. Amazing skies for a pretty amazing week! IMG_0439 IMG_0435

Defence preparation

I will be defending my thesis next Wednesday in front of the panel of examiners as well as the public (mostly made up of friends and labmates which will be nice).

Of course presenting at the conference was a wee bit of practice for the defence, but more was needed. I was actually preparing the defence talk at the same time as my conference one, so I was able to give the defence presentation a couple of times informally when traveling. Upon my return, I gave a practice talk to my labmates, who gave me some helpful pointers (although I must admit I now feel that I am at a point where I want to ignore some suggestions in order to stay true to my own style and the goals I have set out for my presentation). I think the weakest area of my talk, as of last week anyways, are my transitions between chapters (which my lab helped me see of course).

Usually I tend to write out my important talks to practice, even though I don’t read from the script at the actual final presentation. I haven’t written the text for the defence talk, but based on that weak area of transitions, I am thinking that maybe I should. I guess I didn’t want to write a speech because I feel like I have been over this material so often that I want the talk to be more fluid and natural (like a rehearsed conversation). However, with the 20 minute time limit, I need those transitions to be very tight, so I think I need to write a speech to learn those key transition sentences (my plan today and tomorrow). Practice makes perfect so I will try rehearsing in front of the mirror out loud a few times, and maybe to a few more friends. I think now I actually want more help on the question part of the event (which is really the most important part of the defence).

Although the presentation still needs refinement and practice I am proud of 2 parts in particular: the first slide and the last slide. I open with how P is in the news and thus a current concern, not something from the distant past or for the far future. I end my talk about making cities into brightspots of P management instead of simply hotspots of P cycling on the global landscape (which makes me think, I can’t wait to see what the wonderful Future Earth project lead by my advisor on brightspots will find). I feel like I am starting and ending on catchy notes.

I am also reviewing my thesis document as a whole so that I am prepared for questions after the presentation. I am very sad to report that I have found typos…….. After all the work of reading and rereading and getting the computer to read it to me….. still punctuation and missing word typos. It is upsetting but there is nothing I can do about it except correct them for the final version now (I am using track changes as I go through the document now).

Over the past couple of weeks I have also managed to finish (well almost finish) the revisions necessary on 2 of the 3 manuscripts we had sent out before the thesis submission. Although I was a little sluggish starting, the revisions were not that hard, and I think will make both papers stronger. In both cases it was about framing and writing, and not about the data or analysis themselves so it was all doable in a reasonable amount of time.


The trees are changing color as we enter fall in Montreal. A little like the academic transition time I am going through this season.....

The trees are changing colour as we enter fall in Montreal. A little like the academic transition time I am going through this season…..

International conference

At the beginning of September I had a wonderful time at the Sustainable Phosphorus Summit 2014 in Montpellier (and I am now back home, ready to work). It was wonderful reconnecting with people I met at the previous two summits, as well as meeting some wonderful new people (especially some fellow young scientists!).

view of the Place de la Comedie in Montpellier

view of the Place de la Comedie in Montpellier

mapping out the summary of the young scientist day

mapping out the summary of the young scientist day

It was a very busy conference, starting with a full-day workshop with 43 young scientists. I think it was productive, but language barriers always make it challenging for everyone to contribute. Following the workshop were three days of actual conferencing. I presented on the last day, and was also asked to lead and facilitate one of the workshop sessions on that same day; needless to say it was amazing but a lot of work. I also wrote a short commentary on a recently published paper with some other conference attendees. I also got news that a funding proposal a few collaborators and myself put in got funded (we will be comparing Phoenix US, Sydney Australia, Kumasi Ghana, and Hanoi Vietnam looking at P sustainability, links to other urban priorities, and visions for the future). A very excited four days indeed!

From a science communication perspective I must admit I was a little disappointed. I saw a few very good talks, but for the most part, I just felt lucky that I am in a lab that values giving talks and gives me the tools (or opportunities to get tools) to continually improve my presentation skills.

I think attending the conference was in many ways the perfect thing to do between my submission and my defence because it allowed me to see what the “P sustainability” field has been up to these past 2 years and also see where people think its going. It was like a crash course literature review (I must admit that I didn’t really learn many new things during the presentations) and time to think about where my work fits into it all.

I think the two things I thought were interesting, and I knew a little less about were:

  1.  The fact that soil P tests we use in agricultural fields are not always the best in determining plant needs or runoff and erosion risks and there is a lot of work being done on finding something better (depending on the local biogeophysical context of course).
  2. Links between climate change (and other global sustainability challenges) and P sustainability need to be further explored. Links between cause and effects, but also in how they are studied and managed at global and local scales. The P community probably has a lot to learn from the Climate Change community successes and failures.

In other good news: my defence date has been set for October 8th so I must start preparing. In addition, I have another smaller performance of the P dance at the Redpath museum this Friday, and the university has put up a video about the dance (see below, also posted on La Fabrique Culturelle).

Thesis submitted!

Last Wednesday I submitted my thesis to the university. I still have the defence to prep for (which will hopefully be in about 5-6 weeks if all goes smoothly, and of course all the revisions that will come from the 3 manuscripts that are under review for publication), but it does feel good to have the document out of my hands.

I was very lucky that my final 2 week sprint was less of a sprint and more of a fast and steady jog. I wasn’t writing any new material or doing new analyses, I was editing, incorporating feedback, and formatting. It was still stressful, but it I shouldn’t complain.  My one “big task” was going through absolutely everything looking for grammar, spelling, formatting, and consistency errors. I did so by doing a visual scan of everything zoomed out for consistency and formatting first, and then used the speaking function on the computer to have every paragraph and legend read back to me out loud. I am happy I did it of course, but it was also frustrating because I did find small mistakes in every single chapter (which is insane because its not like they were drafts, I had read them so many times!).

I am sacred about what the thesis reviewers will say and thus have some associated nervousness, but I also feel relieved that an important mile-stone is done.

Now I am taking a little bit of time out of the city to make sure I am taking advantage of the end of summer (I can see the leaves turning on the trees so it really is coming to an end) and the wonderful ecosystem services lakes have to provide! I am making progress on little bits of work that I didn’t focus on during the end-of-thesis-jog, and prepping my talks for France (and my defence). I really really would like to blow my audiences out of the water with these talks. I want to deeply incorporate the training about science communication I have received and make sure I finish my degree on a high note. I am consulting online resources and thinking about the “stories” I want to tell, but I also know that I need to be practicing!


View from Parc de la Gatineau


Anthruther lake

Next up is France and I will try and use the blog to do some nice recaps of the conference sessions as well as reflections on science communication throughout.

T-2 weeks but already thinking of post-submission

I know my mind should be 110% in thesis writing mode, but i find myself thinking (and worrying a little) about the 2 talks I will be giving in France at the beginning of September. Of course its all about my thesis, and will be great prep for my thesis defence in October, but I still feel a little guilty my head isn’t solely focused on finishing the writing portion.

paris 2008 046

Urban garden in Paris last time I was there. No talks in Paris this time, but I will still visit a few days.

As soon as I have submitted, I will delve back into the links I have already come across about good presentations, as well as a few new ones. Just today I saw one I quite liked ( only 5 steps to a great presentation, I can do that right!). I am looking forward to working on some science communication, and I know that both of my talks have very different audiences (one is to agronomists in french, and the other is to P sustainability folks (from lots of countries) in english), which means I will need to tailor both the presentations.

Even though I admitted my brain has been wondering off to presentation land a little, I have of course been making progress on the thesis front (thanks to my advisor’s (and other co-authors) thoughtful comments and quick response times). I have finally submitted my framework chapter manuscript! As it had 10 co-authors every step was a little longer, but its finally submitted.

I don’t know why I still find this surprising, but I am bedazzled at how long it takes to add new content to a manuscript when you are not intimately familiar with the literature (and even when you are, you still need to go make sure you are properly citing). A friendly reviewer suggested I add some more content on social capital and innovation in my barriers and facilitators chapter. I already had some citations in there, but I wanted to broaden a little. It took me a week, I read a lot, and in the end probably only added 10-12 sentences and 7 citations. It got done though!

I have also reviewed all the “extra” bits of the thesis (introduction chapter, connecting statements, and conclusion chapter), which are key in making sure the external and internal reviewer see how it all fits together. I am focusing on some of the formatting of the overall thesis over the weekend, and will hopefully be ready and refreshed for a next round of revisions on my last chapter (which I do hope to submit for publication before submitting my thesis), and my extra bits.

It seems unreal that this document might actually exist in a few days!

Garden in full bloom in from of the house this week (hopefully the thesis will also be flowering soon!)

Garden in full bloom in from of the house this week (hopefully the thesis will also be flowering soon!)